Less than a week before Judaism’s great holy days, four Jewish communities in Alabama held Saturday night prayers during a special service ahead of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which begins this Friday. evening.
Unlike in other years, the Saturday night service, known as Selichot, was held on the Zoom online video conferencing platform, with synagogues not hosting in-person services due to the coronavirus pandemic.
About 80 to 100 Alabama Jews from Montgomery, Mobile, Auburn and Dothan attended the service, said Montgomery Synagogue Rabbi Scott Kramer Agudath Israel Etz Ahayem, who was on the Zoom call. But they weren’t alone.
At around 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, obscure figures disrupted the online service by bombarding the chat with Adolf Hitler’s photo call, Nazi symbols and screams of anti-Semitic epithets, Kramer said.
“It was horrible. There were Nazi pictures, swastikas, Hitler pictures, there were videos, some of which I thought were pornographic, but I’m not sure,” Kramer said. “But then the voices came and they were very loud, very loud. They used very bad language, ‘f’in jew’, ‘go back to the showers.’ Just very crude images of the Holocaust.
The attack while on duty was what has been called “Zoombombing,” or online provocateurs who hack conference calls on Zoom and other platforms to shout hate messages, post pornography, or reveal personal information. on the recipients of the call, according to a FBI March memo warning these cyber attacks could be carried out during online education during the pandemic.
The Alabama “Zoombomb” lasted for several minutes, Kramer said, adding that it was difficult to remove intruders from the prayer service, “but everyone hung on and we finally restarted our service and that was very successful “.
Selichot was meant to be a way for Alabama’s Jewish community to connect at a time when synagogues weren’t hosting in-person services, according to Kramer.
“We all thought we were in a safe place. We were violently attacked. Everyone still feels it. It’s just etched in our minds now, what has happened, ”he said. “When you think you are in a safe place and someone comes in and throws this vile language at you, you feel like you’ve been raped. We have all felt this. We were all in shock and had to change our service to try to get people to come back into a safe space. There were a lot of people crying, I cried for a while. We needed a separation between what had happened and we had to deal with it online. “
Kramer alerted the Montgomery Police Department to the incident, but said the department redirected him to the FBI because he did not have a cybersecurity unit capable of investigating. The rabbi said he had contacted the FBI offices in Montgomery and Mobile but had yet to receive a response.
The Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish non-profit association that fights anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred, supported the Jewish community in Alabama after the incident, Kramer said. The organization has given the community advice on how to secure its online services to prevent Zoombombs.
“Other than that, we had a lot of non-Jewish ministers in Montgomery and outside who offered nothing but support. It has been extremely gratifying to hear this, ”Kramer said. “The support I have received from my own community and from outside the wider community, Jewish and non-Jewish, has been encouraging. “
As for the hackers, Kramer said he didn’t have any messages for them because he said he didn’t think they were going to change.
“These are lonely people in this world who want to think it’s fun and want to blame other people for the sadness in their own lives,” he said. “I don’t know what it is and honestly I don’t care. I just care how it affected those in attendance. “